A persistent claim made after the latest American difficulty in the Middle East is that Washington’s leaders are unable to foresee Arab reaction to U.S. policy initiatives. History sometimes tells a different story. Consider what happened when the United States first became deeply involved in the Jewish-Palestinian imbroglio. Prior to 1945, the United States had favorable bonds with all parties to the argument and limited its official stance to expressions of sympathy for both disputing sides.
This changed when President Harry Truman proposed Palestine as the destination for a hundred thousand Jewish refugees then fleeing Europe. In 1947 a U.N. committee, with American urging, proposed a partition of Palestine into two separate regions, one predominately Jewish, the other largely Arab. In October of that year, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff responded to a request for their views by firmly opposing the proposal, saying, “A decision to partition Palestine…would prejudice U.S. strategic interests in the Near and Middle East to a point that U.S. influence in the area would be curtailed to that which could be maintained by military force.” They also warned their civilian superiors of the “grave dangers” and “severe disturbances” partitioning would cause and predicted the Soviet Union would likely exploit the rift to diminish U.S. and British influence in the region.
Their protest was for naught. President Truman was determined to see the establishment of a Jewish homeland and ordered the State Department to support partitioning. In the winter of 1947-48, the predicted “severe disturbances” were realized when about seven thousand Arab guerrilla fighters began committing acts of terrorism against Jewish settlements. In May 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed, and with it the “grave dangers” arrived, in the form of war between the new nation and its neighbors. True to the American Joint Chiefs’ forecast, the Soviet Union gradually became the supporting power on the Arab side in the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, thereby diminishing Anglo-American influence in the Muslim Middle East. To this day, the United States maintains its strategic interests and influence in this troubled part of the world by keeping American military forces nearby. It would seem the Chiefs were right and their commander in chief was wrong.
However, the Joint Chiefs made their recommendations while wholly focused on national security. President Truman was not only expected to safeguard the country; Americans also depended on him to accommodate their preferences. In 1948, 65 percent of Americans favored partitioning and establishing a Jewish refuge.
The positive public response to Truman’s decision has endured. Despite the lack of a mutual security pact between Israel and the United States, seventy percent of Americans view Israel as a “reliable ally.” Moreover, Truman’s policy was in accord with the expressed desire of other presidents. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt had all favored a Jewish homeland.
By way of contrast, this issue features William Astore’s account of what can happen when generals, and not elected officials, make national policy.